Padna (Kasaragod): Thamban Keereni, who sells roofing sheets, gets a voice message on his phone around 3.30 pm on Wednesday, November 9. "There's practice tonight, right? I will come. The surgery is over."
"Yes. Reach by 7.30," Keereni replies.
"That's Chinnu, our lead actress," he says, exiting the phone.
Ashwathy (22), a beautician, missed her theatre practice for two days because her three-year-old daughter managed to push the eraser on top of the pencil into her nostril. The child had to undergo a minor surgical procedure to get the eraser plug removed at Kannur Medical College at Pariyaram. "Now the kid is fine and Chinnu is back in the nick of time for the competition," he said.
Ashwathy and Keereni are part of the Chorus Kala Samithi that is hosting the NN Pillai Memorial State Professional Theatre Competition, considered the biggest theatre fixture in Kerala.
The 11-day competition starts on Monday, November 14, the 27th death anniversary of the NN Pillai, referred to as the 'Nadakacharyan' or high priest of Malayalam theatre.
The competition is much sought after for two reasons, says Vijayaraghavan, NN Pillai's son and popular actor. The first reason is it is the only theatre competition held in the name of NN Pillai in Kerala, he says. The second reason is Maniyat, he says. "Nowhere else does a stage play attract so many theatre lovers. Surely nowhere in south Kerala," says Vijayaraghavan, who is from Kottayam.
Chorus Kala Samithi has even named its three-storey office building after NN Pillai.
Seeing the crowd in the 6th edition of the festival in 2017, the late veteran theatre and movie actor Nedumudi Venu said Maniyat should be renamed as 'Nadakagramam' (Theatre Village). "I will be on the forefront introducing this name across Kerala," he said.
A celebration of Maniyat
Theatre groups across the state eye for a venue in Maniyat, says T V Balan, theatre actor and general convenor of Chorus Kala Samithi.
This year, the club got 29 applications from theatre groups to take part in the competition. "Our members watched and reviewed most of them and selected 10 plays," he says.
The selected plays touch up on a wide range of themes such as drug abuse, sexual abuse of women, and pharmaceutical companies making unethical profits.
The Chorus's play 'Kalapangalkappuram' (Beyond the Riots) will be staged on November 24, the last day of the festival. "It tells the story of two close-knit families belonging to two different religions and how a communal riot tears them apart," says Sharika Rajesh, who plays the mother of Ashwathy in 'Kalapangalkappuram'.
In 2019, Chorus staged an all-women's play 'Thanal Marangal' at the festival.
The festival is always fully sponsored by the people and businesses of the village, and the youngsters who work abroad. Bus owners ply their buses free of cost to take home the spectators.
Beyond the stagecraft, Chorus makes the theatre competition a festival of the village, says Sharika, who is also the president of the club's women's wing called Vanitha Vedi.
The club has 110 women and 45 men as its members. The women divided themselves into 22 squads with five members each and spread out in Kannur and Kasaragod to invite people to the festival. The women went to Karivellur-Peralam, Kankol-Alappadamba grama panchayats in Kannur, Valiyaparamba, Kayyur-Cheemeni, Cheruvathur, Padna, Trikaripur and Nileshwar grama panchayats in Kasaragod. "We knocked on at least 900 doors and invited them to the festival. Many of them are regulars and were expecting us," says Sharika.
On the first day of the festival, the theatre artists and the chief guests would be ushered in by a public procession. For an outsider, it may look like a temple festival procession.
"We have trained 60 children to skate. So they will be leading the procession on roller skates this time," said Balan.
Actor Suraj Venjaramoodu and theatre actor-director Satheesh Sangamithra will be felicitated. Surabhi Lakshmi and Unni Mukundan will be the other actors among the spectators.
On the first day, the guests will be welcomed with an indigenous sweet. This year, Sheeja P, a baker, has come up with a ripe pumpkin-based 'vattayappam'.
“We made it once during the meeting of the organising committee. The feedback was good. So all our guests will also get to taste that," said Sharika.
On the last day, the guests would be treated to a sumptuous community dinner before the show begins.
The people will be filling up the pantry with rice, vegetables, tuber crops, and groceries during the 10 days.
"Every day, the guests will be bringing something just like they do during temple festivals. The provision will be used to prepare the grand dinner," says Sharika.
This year, Chorus is expecting 6,000 to 8,000 guests, up from 3,000 last year.
Early birds of Maniyat
The curtains will go up at 7.30 pm sharp. Five minutes before that, the organisers will light fireworks. By then people will be already seated. One of the first persons to book his seat is P P Kunhikrishnan, the affable 'magistrate' in 'Nna, Thaan Case Kodu' (2022). He will drop his white handkerchief on a front-row seat at 5 pm and go and return by 7 pm.
Kunhikrishnan, a member of Padna grama panchayat, routinely acts for Chorus. After the success of the Kunchacko Boban-starrer movie, Kunhikrishnan has transited to the silver screen. "I am shooting for a Priyadarshan movie in Kochi till November 14. I will be at Maniyat the next day and have asked the organisers to keep a newspaper on my seat," he says over the phone.
Kunhikrishnan says street plays and theatre plays run in the veins of Maniyat. "People used to say TV serials will kill the theatre. But the mothers of Maniyat will wrap up their work and take their seats in the front by 5.30 pm," he says. "That's why I go earlier and drop my handkerchief at 5 pm," says the retired Hindi teacher known for his wits in the panchayat.
General convenor Balan, who also arranges the light and sound for the festival, says the open ground can accommodate around 5,000 people.
Usually, 3,000 people come to watch the stage plays. "This year we are expecting more because we lost the last two years to Covid," he says.
People hire vehicles and come from Kollam, Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Kozhikode, and Bengaluru to watch the plays. "We don't have such an experience anywhere nearby," says Kunhikrishnan.
Live feedback, no segregated seats
Despite the crowd, there are no volunteers or segregated seating for male and female guests, says Rilesh K, the young secretary of the Chorus club. "Every guest has to be responsible for themselves. In the past eight festivals, we never had a problem. There will be pin-drop silence even if there is a glitch with sound or light. The people will patiently wait for the problem to be rectified," he says.
The best thing about the Maniyat festival is the live feedback system. After the play, the crowd will remain in their seats. The actors and the directors will come and sit opposite them. "That's when the people will speak their minds. There will be bouquets and brickbats and suggestions," says Kunhikrishnan. "Nowhere else does this happen," he says.
In the initial years, the pandal discussion used to happen the next day among the spectators.
In the 5th edition of the festival in 2016, veteran actor-director Madhu, who was the guest, suggested that people should be able to give their 'fresh' feedback directly to stage actors and directors soon after the play. "That's how the after-show discussion started," said Balan.
Madhu stayed in Maniyat for four days and even read three scripts during that time.
Legacy of Vidwan P Kelu Nair
The seeds of street and stage play were sowed in Maniyat by nationalist leader Vidwan P Kelu Nair in the 1920s.
In 1929, the prolific playwright and poet ended his life at the young age of 28 years at Vignana Daayini, a Sanskrit school he started at Bellikoth in present-day Ajanur grama panchayat. By then, he had written five musicals, and written and acted in six major plays. The plays were based on Indian mythologies but he cleverly weaved in nationalistic ideas and programmes of Mahatma Gandhi in them.
Vidwan P Kelu Nair regularly staged his plays in Maniyat, 25 km from Bellikoth. He also set up the Vignana Daayini reading room and library in Maniyat in 1927.
"Maniyat with a huge working-class population embraced his plays. The later generations took up NN Pillai's plays," said C Narayanan, a beedi worker turned employee of the Department of Education, and now a full-time actor of Chorus.
Now, there are around 15 theatre clubs in Maniyat revenue village, says Kunhikrishnan of 'Nna Thaan Case Kodu'.
Neighbouring villages of Trikaripur and Cheruvathur are also pockets of theatre lovers. Deepan Sivaraman's path-breaking 'Khasakkinte Ithihasam' debuted in Trikaripur in 2016 and was performed by artistes drawn from Trikaripur, Payyannur, and Karivellur.
Kannamkai Nadaka Vedi, another theatre group in Cheruvathur and 5km from Maniyat, is selling raffle tickets, ahead of its seventh theatre festival from January 2 to 8.
Scripting a different plot, Kannamkai Nadaka Vedi, with 65 female members, is giving five cents of land, a mattock, five coconut saplings, and seeds of organic vegetables as the first prize for the lucky draw. The second prize is a cow, the third prize is a goat and the winner of the fourth prize will get four hens. The lots will be drawn on January 8, the last day of the festival.
"We are raising money, not for the theatre festival but for helping the poor find a livelihood and for the extensive palliative care work it does in Cheruvathur grama panchayat," says Kannamkai Kunhiraman, an award-winning actor and the force behind the theatre group.
The Chorus theatre group, which also does palliative care work, says the sense of social commitment is high among theatre groups in these areas. "NN Pillai's plays have strong social messages and are critical of the evils in society. They struck a chord with the people of Maniyat," says Narayanan.
That's why Chorus thought it would be apt to set up a memorial and start a theatre competition in the name of NN Pillai. The competition in Maniyat lifts the curtain on the theatre season in Kasaragod. Shows will go on till May.
The Maniyat competition's revolving trophy is a replica of N N Pillai's memorial site in his courtyard where he was cremated. His words inscribed on the memorial are reproduced on the trophy, too: "What a wonder! Did the universe create me or did the universe come into being through me? I will write the answers to these questions without answers on my epitaph."
But people who attended the theatre festival at Maniyat last time might not have taken home these heavy words. They embraced Anjooran's warm endearing words written on the entrance arch: 'Keri vada Makkale'. Come on in, Children.